Commentary: Plagues and prayers

Castel Sant’Angelo with Bronze of Saint Michael

ROME – At the time of the plagues of 590 AD and The Black Plague of 1348 in Rome prayers were the primary remedy. Prayers produced an astonishing sign in the sky that a deadly plague would end. A vision above Emperor Hadrian’s Tomb of Saint Michael the Archangel sheathing his sword signified that the Plague of 590 AD would end.

  For my painting, I used the current large bronze that is atop the building now. The Archangel is in a Roman Soldier’s garb and he is indeed putting away his sword. I painted how I imagined the vision in the sky to look, with shimmering movement, and blood stains in a brilliant sky. Saint Pope Gregory the Great and hundreds of pilgrims processed praying from the Basilica of Saint Mary Major through the streets of Rome toward Saint Peter's Basilica carrying an icon of the Virgin Mary, Holy Mary, Protectress of the Roman People, Santa Maria Solus Populi Romani, believed to have been painted by Saint Luke.

  They saw the vision of Saint Michael dressed in the armour of a Roman soldier returning his bloodied sword to the scabbard. Emperor Hadrian's Tomb has since been called Castel Sant'Angelo. The miraculous vision of the archangel was commemorated by a chapel dedicated to St. Michael built atop the mausoleum and later by a statue of the angel placed above the chapel. Pope Gregory's vision was never forgotten. It was confirmed by a similar miracle marking the end of the Black Death of 1348."

  The first statue of Saint Michael was on top of the castle and is now in a courtyard of the Castle. This is typical of Roman recycling that can combine elements from different eras. In this case the bronze wings were screwed onto the marble sculpture. In like manner, the Emperor’s Tomb was recycled to become a fortress, then a prison, a sanctuary with a secret passageway from the Papal Palaces, and now it is one of the iconic buildings that present the Roman Skyline.

  In Milan, that was devastated by the plague of 1576, Saint Charles Borromeo, then Archbishop, used prayers combined with active heroic charity to combat the plague. Caravaggio biographer, Helen Langdon, presents a moving account of how Saint Charles gave his life to care for the sick. Caravaggio’s grandfather and his father died from the plague in1577.

  Another Caravaggio Biographer, Andrew Graham-Dixon, does not have such a high regard for the saint. He wrote, “Borromeo did not entirely succeed in his efforts to turn Milan into a model Tridentine police state.” 

  I always wondered why Dixon, not a fan of the Counter Reformation, chose to write about the quintessential Catholic artist Caravaggio. He disparaged the promotion of confession and other sacraments by Saint Borromeo and the Counter Reformation with its sacred art which was a powerful response to the whitewashed iconoclasm of Protestantism. Borromeo kept the long Council of Trent, 1545 to 1563, lasting long enough for it to express the conviction that the Church would continue with renewed zeal to make sacred art.

  Helen Langdon, Caravaggio biographer, writes about Saint Charles Borromeo and the plague in Milan, in ‘Caravaggio, A Life’. 

  “Carlo with unwavering courage, laboured tirelessly to bring comfort to the sick, to both their bodies and souls, winning the devotion of the poorest and most miserable. Above all, Carlo, with immense rhetorical skill, transformed the city into a vast and highly orchestrated display of penitence and of ceaseless prayer. The Milanese, whom the quarantine laws forbade to go to church, worshipped at their doors and windows. Tabernacles and devotional images embellished the roadsides, while at the crossroads, and throughout the squares of the city, Carlo erected altars, where Mass was celebrated, and those confined to their houses could listen at the windows. And at the centre of this intense display of devotion Carlo himself, bearing aloft the relic of the Holy Nail from the cathedral, shoeless and oblivious to his bleeding feet, walked amid a dolorous procession of penitents. (those Catholics are always processing and praying) Borromeo wore a purple mantle with a hood and a rope around his neck, like a condemned man. The Canons were dressed in the same way. Carlo had become an emblem of Catholic charity, engraving in his own flesh the sufferings of Christ and re-creating the glories of the early Church, seeking a heroic martyrdom in the streets of Milan.”

  Plagues look different now, but in many ways, they affect us in the same way. We can see cat scans and molecular diagrams, but contagion and quarantine are the same. Are plagues like The Flood, corrective purifying events as we live East of Eden, or are they the natural results in our DNA having evolved from the mud? With plagues and viruses, doctors, nurses, and health care workers, are heroic.


Vision of Saint Michael the Archangel, Sullivan, 2011.
Procession to cure Milan of the Plague 1576